CHWP B.15 Merrilees, "Medieval Dictionary Entry"

1. Basic structures of the dictionary article

The minimal structure of a glossary, lexicon or dictionary entry consists of two parts, the lemma or headword and the gloss or definition. This description is sufficient to cover some very early and rudimentary texts such as the Glosses of Reichenau, but as early as the eleventh century and the Elementarium of the Italian Papias dictionary entries were already developing other constituent parts. Their nature is hardly surprising: their position can be defined by the relationship to the lemma and the definition. What is striking however, as we will try to show, is the gradual association of certain kinds of metalinguistic information with each of the positions. Although these are far from rigid even by the time printing began to fix some of the medieval practices, the correlation of information and location can be traced through the evolution of the manuscript dictionaries of the Middle Ages.

It is not surprising to find that the most basic structure of lemma + definition (L D) is the most frequent individual type in Papias' Elementarium doctrinæ. In a preliminary sample count from a twelfth-century manuscript (BN lat. 7611) I found 43 LD examples out of 115 entries, or nearly one in three. This sample was too small to be useful and I therefore analysed longer samples from a fifteenth-century printed copy of Papias taking whole letters at different points in the text. The letters B, M and T were imported from an ASCII text into a database file that used four fields, lemma, postlemma, definition and postdefinition to divide the material of the dictionary entry. Queries were run on the contents of the various fields and simple statistics generated from the results. For the entries consisting of simply lemma + definition, the proportion was higher than in the small manuscript sample: the letter B had 54.7% of its entries in that category, the letter M 46.7% and T 51.8%, giving 49.9% for all sample entries taken together or roughly one in two. This was confirmed by the only portion based on an edition from manuscript sources, the letter A, where 46.9% show the LD form (De Angelis 1977).

These figures however mean that a half or more of the entries did not have the simple LD structure and that the rest of the entries brought the other two positions, the post-lemmatic and the post-definitional, into play. In many manuscripts of Papias, the marginal position is also used, but its application seems at some variance with Papias' intention as stated in his prologue and we shall leave discussion of it aside for the moment.

1.1. The post-lemmatic position

The post-lemmatic position (PL) is commonly used by Papias who put the following kinds of information immediately after the lemma:
  1. definitional connectors such as dicitur, interpretatur, est etc., sometimes .i. (id est). This latter will be more frequently used by later lexicographers, esp. Le Ver where it dominates the PL position. Le Ver's Dictionarius has some 28,000 examples all told of "id est", most in a PL position. In Papias definitional connectors account for approximately 43% of the cases;
  2. indication of language, especially the term grece or a Greek form (27%);
  3. information on etymology, including derivation or composition (15%);
  4. grammatical information including parts of speech, esp. adverbium, and attributes such as gender or orthography (10%);
  5. occasional confirmative or emphatic elements: vero, generale, proprie.
The PL position itself is used in 30.1% of the entries in the sample letters, in some cases without any definitional material following (see below).

1.2. The post-definitional position

The other position that Papias uses is the post-definitional (PD) in approximately one entry in four (25.3%). In some cases it is difficult to label some information as post-definitional when it is in effect an extension of the definition or to distinguish categories of post-definitional material, particularly between quasi-etymological explanations and other expansions of the definition. However we have, with some caution as to the exactness of the percentages given, divided the PD examples as follows:

  1. etymological and derivational information (32%);
  2. definitional expansion (28%);
  3. definitional connectors (12%);
  4. language or language reference (11%);
  5. grammatical and phonetic or orthographic information (7%).

1.3. Marginal information

In the prologue to his Elementarium doctrinæ, Papias promises that his dictionary will provide much useful information, including indication of gender, declension and tense:[1]

In many of the Papias manuscripts, the scribes set out to place such information in the margin, along with names of authorities identified:

This last is carried out much more faithfully in most manuscripts than the promise to provide grammatical information and the marginal grammatical indications usually drop out after three or four folios. The marginal position (M) then is largely reserved for references, not always sustained beyond the early folios, but some grammatical information is also found there.[2] As Daly and Daly state (Daly & Daly 1964: 234), the programme to provide grammatical and etymological information promised in the prologue "is carried out but indifferently" in the manuscripts they had seen. Nonetheless they note an awareness by Papias of an overall lexicographical plan.

[Return to table of contents] [Continue]


[1] The translation appears in Daly & Daly 1964: 232.

[2] Many manuscripts contain a list of the abbreviations to be used to designate authorities.